Being Black in Jasper

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
India Clay of Jasper poses for a portrait with her son, Darius, 3, outside her home in Jasper on Monday. Clay has experienced frequent racist remarks while living in Jasper the last seven years. She worries about what her sons will face when they start school. "It makes me cry thinking that some kid is going to be picking on my boy when he's 5 years old because he's a different skin color."

By JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

JASPER — Moving anywhere to start a new life can be daunting. But couple that with going to a place where most of the population doesn’t look like you, and it compounds issues related to settling in and finding your niche.

Jasper is more than 97% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Black people make up less than 1% of the population. That could be an intimidating fact to face, but it didn’t keep few such residents from moving in to make a life for themselves. Each has faced a unique set of challenges that comes with being Black in a place like Jasper.

Shelby Randall, 57, is a Chicago native who moved to Jasper to take an IT job eight years ago. He had never heard of the town before, but was quickly charmed by its feel and pace when he arrived.

“When I first moved out here, it was nice,” he said. “I like the atmosphere and the scenery. I like the peace and quiet. Everybody is laid back and family-oriented, so that caught my eye.”

Shelby described his first interactions as “friendly,” but he also got a lot of looks that asked ‘How did you get here?’ without explicitly saying it. That didn’t bother him, and he started slowly building a network of friends. However, he’s had his share of awkward interactions that stem from him being Black. He took a job at Walgreens, and a regular customer would come in and make racially-charged comments toward him. He also said he’s been to restaurants where he felt a tension and received substandard treatment.

“Sometimes they look at you like they don’t want to serve you,” he said. “I just get up and walk out.”

Sequiyah Hawkins of Jasper poses for a portrait on Monday.

But the most taxing encounter happened when Shelby was pulled over one night in Huntingburg. He was working as a professional driver and was with a client at the time, and it quickly occurred to him that the officer didn’t have substantive reason for pulling him over. He was gravely concerned about how this situation could affect his job.

“This is not going to work,” Shelby remembered telling himself.

So he decided to take a proactive approach to try and prevent that kind of situation from occurring. He learned that a group of officers met at McDonald’s for coffee, and he went to meet with them.

“I let them know this is who I am,” he said. “This is what I do. So if you pull me over, this is what’s going on. That’s like breaking the ice. There’s a fear in African American men that if they get pulled over by the cops, that might be it for them. But I said, ‘Before things get out of hand, let me do this.’”

It’s the same philosophy he’s adopted when it comes to meeting other people around town. Shelby goes out of his way to extend himself to people to disarm them and whatever preconceived notions they may hold. It’s about establishing his space in the community, and he’s not worried that everyone won’t like him.

“My thing was just being real,” he said. “I let them know, ‘This is who I am. You treat me nice, I’ll treat you nice.’ Do something out of the norm. I might speak to you before you speak to me. That was my way to get to know people.”

Sequiyah Hawkins, 42, found herself doing the same thing not too long ago. She moved to Jasper about three years ago after marrying her husband, Steven, who was working at Matrix Integration. Sequiyah didn’t know much about Jasper coming in, and she was a bit nervous about relocating. She grew up in Atlanta and was relocating from the Washington, D.C., area, and she was concerned about how she would be received in Jasper’s homogeneous environment.

“I had visited Jasper twice, and I had never seen a Black person,” she said. “So I was worried if I would be accepted.”

She also read an article about how another Black woman had been racially harassed after moving to rural Indiana, which included having her car and house defaced with derogatory terms, and sugar poured in her gas tank. Though she had been around predominantly white areas before, reading that story only added to Sequiyah’s concerns. However, she was pleasantly surprised by the welcome she received.

“My first interaction was with people from Shiloh [United Methodist] Church, that’s where my husband went,” Sequiyah said. “They were super welcoming. I didn’t feel out of place or anything like that. We were going there and hanging out with some of the people there.”

But even though the interactions were friendly, the awkward parts of a culture clash soon followed.

“You notice little things,” she said. “It was the first time in my life I had ever been called ‘colored.’ It was one of the ladies at the church. She was talking to me, and she said, ‘You know, my husband would have liked you. He didn’t like Black people. He used the N-word. But I think he would have liked you. You’re a good colored person.’ I was just like, ‘Oh?’ I guess the look on my face let her know she said something wrong.”

Sequiyah took a moment to explain to the woman why she shouldn’t refer to Black people as colored, and she immediately apologized for her remark. She admitted she had not been raised around Black people, a common thread that linked similar instances Sequiyah would experience down the line.

“It was the first real encounter that I had in Jasper,” she said. “But it was an encounter based off of ignorance. She just didn’t know. It gave me an idea of the area I was living in.”

Other encounters weren’t so tame. Sequiyah remembers being asked out to lunch in Ireland with a friend from Shiloh when she had her first run-in with a spiteful racist.

“We walked in, sat at the bar to order and there was this table of white people,” she said. “One of the gentlemen [said], ‘I’m not eating here with people like that coming in.’ He stood up, and I stood up. He looked at me and walked out. None of his friends said anything. The bartender apologized. I had lunch and never went back. That was the first real encounter of hatred in the Jasper area.”

Sequiyah had another encounter when she and Steven, who is white, went to the movie theater one afternoon.

“We were in the movie theater, and a man was giving us a very mean, disgusted look,” she said. “We let him keep going on ahead of us so there wouldn’t be a confrontation. [As] we were walking out, he had posted up in the middle of where the popcorn and stuff is, and he was looking towards us. He was looking so mean, and I was like, ‘What are you looking at?’ He kind of jumped, turned around and walked out.”

There was also a tense instance at Walmart where Sequiyah believes some customers thought she was abducting her white stepdaughter.

“My stepdaughter was sick, so I tell my husband, ‘I’ll take her back to the car,’” Sequiyah said. “She had her hoodie on, she was leaning on my side and I had my arms around her leading her out of the store. People saw this Black woman with this partially covered white child going out of Walmart and thought I was kidnapping her. People stepped in front of us. My daughter was like, ‘Momma I don’t feel good,’ and I guess they hear her call me momma and moved aside.”

Sequiyah said those instances were rare cases she’s experienced in her three years in Jasper, and having grown up in the South, she isn’t intimidated by racist encounters. Sometimes she confronts them head-on, while other times, she may choose to ignore them. But even though the extreme cases are rare, she’s determined not to be intimidated by whatever she may face. She’s here to stay.

“I love this community,” she said. “I love the people of Jasper. I won’t judge this good community based off of a few negative situations.”

A good community is also what India Clay was looking for when she came to Jasper.

India, 26, is originally from Louisville, but moved back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana her whole life. She moved to Jasper seven years ago to be closer to her mother and provide a safer environment to raise her son. She said she met cool people early on, but every once in a while, she has brushes with racist attitudes. Sometimes it’s manifested as people shouting the N-word at her while she was walking down the street. Other times, it’s come from people saying something offensive to her after a night of drinking.

“Saying, ‘You’re pretty for a Black girl.’ That’s racist,” she shared as an example. “Or saying, ‘I’m almost as dark as you.’ That happens a lot in Jasper. They don’t realize what racism is.”

She learned to deal with the casual racism she encountered, but she often worried about how she should react when faced with those situations, especially in a social setting. Being one of the few Black people who live in Jasper, India wondered if her confronting some of the casual racism she has experienced would get her placed in a box.

“Here, we have to be quiet because if you act out, you’re ‘too ghetto,’” she said.

But some of the harshest interactions came from India’s attempts to date in Jasper. That is when she encountered situations where people deliberately tried to get under her skin and demean her because she is Black.

“A lot of the ignorant, I’m-trying-to-hurt-your-feelings [stuff] happens during dating,” she said. “If you want to leave, they want to hurt your feelings. They want to make you feel like nobody is going to like you because most guys here are not your color. They try to pin it down to, ‘You’re Black and I only wanted you because you’re Black. That’s all anybody is going to want you for. That’s the only time people would try to offend me. The rest is [people] being dumb.”

Despite growing used to the racism she encounters, India is rethinking her ideas about settling in Jasper. She feels like she walks on eggshells around her neighbors and the clients she takes care of in her work as a direct care staff member. She’s been able to develop a small social circle that she’s comfortable around, but it’s not enough for a fulfilling life in the long run.

“I wouldn’t say Jasper is all bad,” she said. “But I shouldn’t have to dial it down to the eight or 10 people that I know. Those people make it worth being here, but growing in Jasper doesn’t seem to be a thing to me anymore.”

India’s greatest concerns rest with her three sons. They are all biracial, and it scares her to think about how they could be mistreated by their peers because of that. She hasn’t talked to them about race and how it will affect their lives yet, but she knows she wants to raise sons that are proud of their identity, and doesn’t think that will be possible in Jasper. She has a Latino friend who’s lived in the area since he was 3, and it broke her heart when he told her about how he got used to being teased and called derogatory names by other kids while he was growing up. She doesn’t want that for her sons.

“I’m terrified they are going to be made fun of in school,” she said. “I’m deathly terrified my kids will come home and [say], ‘I don’t want to go to school because they’re mean to me.’ When you pick on my kids, I don’t think I can handle it. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to move out of Jasper, but I’m not going to raise them here.”




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